Alasdair Ekpenyong had never heard of a gay Mormon before. It seemed like a paradox, an oxymoron. “What is a gay Mormon?” he asked.
“It’s someone who stays in the Mormon community,” Rick replied, “even while dating someone of the same gender.”
Rick was recounting his life for Alasdair and a group of visitors. He was not a gay Mormon anymore—he’d left the faith years ago, fed up with feeling unwelcome in his own religion. So now Rick was just a gay man with a towering stature and a scraggly beard. On this day he was also wearing a dress, a detail that made Alasdair squirm in his slacks. In Alasdair’s mind, men simply did not wear dresses. But then, Twin Oaks Intentional Community was not supposed to resemble Alasdair’s mind.
Alasdair was Mormon, and Twin Oaks was the sort of place that could make a Mormon blush. Twin Oaks was a Virginia commune with a reputation for liberal politics and libertine sexuality, and Rick’s room was a stop on the visitor tour.
It was April 2012. Alasdair was twenty years old and found himself in the commune as a researcher, studying the strange ways of people like Rick. It was a bit of a role reversal—Mormons are used to finding themselves under the microscope, studied as if they were an odd lichen on the boulder of America. There’s always a species stranger than your own.
Alasdair had just finished seven months of missionary work in Salt Lake City, helping with church genealogy projects. Young Mormon men usually become missionaries in their late teens, often traveling overseas to spread the faith and immerse themselves in scripture, or working domestically like Alasdair. A two-year Mormon mission requires such discipline that it can seem like a kind of spiritual infantry, with all the surveillance and rigidity you’d expect of a foot soldier of faith. Missionaries remain constantly in pairs, adhering strictly to schedules, dress codes, and prohibitions on any form of entertainment other than scripture.
But Alasdair had always been intensely independent, including in his relationship to Mormonism. His mission chafed him. Even living in an urban center like Salt Lake City he felt disconnected from the world at large. So he’d left early, knowing full well that a missionary who gives up can be treated like a deep disappointment to his community.
On the day he was released, his old Mormon bishop had picked him up from the mission site. The bishop had lived through a mission of his own, and in the time since had become a church leader and historian of early Mormonism. Out of compassion, before Alasdair had even unpinned the black nametag from his pressed white shirt, the bishop hired him to work as a research assistant. That was how Alasdair had come to the Twin Oaks commune.
Alasdair Ekpenyong is a black Nigerian-American with the tall and narrow build of a distance runner. He wears metal-frame glasses and keeps his hair buzzed close to his head. Rick and Alasdair, therefore, did not look much alike. But they had two things in common. First, both of them had been baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the full name of the Mormon Church. Rick had been born Mormon, while Alasdair had converted as a teenager.
Second, both of them were gay. Alasdair just didn’t say it that way, or, rather, didn’t say it at all. In the gentler language of the Church of Latter-day Saints, he thought of himself as “same-gender attracted.” But he kept this secret, knowing that a Mormon who acted on same-gender attraction could be excommunicated—thrown out of the faith.
This policy was actually quite progressive in the context of the history of the Mormon Church. It used to be that simply feeling same-gender attraction was sinful. In 2007, the church updated its doctrine to distinguish between feelings and actions. After that, same-gender attracted Mormons could be open about their feelings, as long as they chose straight marriage or celibacy. In 2008, however, when the Church of Latter-day Saints publicly supported California’s Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage, it became clear just how complicated this stance was. In several cases, private organizations run by Mormons have also taken such goals abroad, by campaigning at the United Nations and in Africa against the LGBT rights and gay marriage.
There are a lot of gay Mormons, paradoxical or not. Many of them, like Rick, simply leave the faith. Alasdair intended to stay.
In July, he would be returning to Brigham Young University—BYU, the academic home of 30,000 young Mormons in Provo, Utah, forty miles south of Salt Lake. The research job with his former bishop would last him until then. His task as an assistant was to study the commune’s utopian vision during its three-week visitor program.
Utopia was the link between this commune and Alasdair’s church. Many communes had been conceived as perfected societies, built to enshrine basic human values. Twin Oaks had no particular religious or sexual orientation, but emphasized equality and nonviolence. Early Mormonism, meanwhile, had fashioned itself as a perfected version of Christianity. Salt Lake City, Utah, had been built as Mormonism’s first utopian city of faith—Zion, as they called it. Alasdair’s bishop hoped that modern-day communes like Twin Oaks might shed light on the nature of early Mormonism.
So Alasdair spent his first day at Twin Oaks on a tour with three other visitors. There were about a dozen buildings tucked between stands of trees, plus gardens and a barn, where the visitors would help out during their stay. Rick lived on the second floor of a dormitory-style building. As he showed the visitors inside, he’d explained his Mormon upbringing and his experiences in the faith. That was when Alasdair asked about gay Mormons.
Rick had lived in Utah well into his twenties, trying to date men without leaving the church. He had come to feel that his religion, which could be so warm and welcoming, officially considered him a sinner. It had taken him years to let go, but he finally did.
Inside Rick’s room there was a bunk bed, a couch, and a second mattress on the floor. But it was the wall that caught Alasdair’s attention. It was covered with photographs. Rick had taken them in Salt Lake City, the very capital of Mormon utopia, the same city in which Alasdair had served his mission. The images were of nude men, artfully composed, each one reclining outdoors or cradling a vase. To Alasdair, they were a scandal, a shock.
Beneath his clothes, Alasdair was wearing his white temple garments, a special kind of Mormon underclothes that look like long underwear and an undershirt. A Mormon wearing the garments implicitly promises to act with discipline and self-restraint. Still, no one would stop him if his eyes traced the naked outline of a man, the curve of a long leg and the muscles of a bare torso.
He averted his eyes, and went on with the tour.
A few afternoons later, the commune held an outdoor spring party. Alasdair was playing croquet with one of the other visitors. Down the hill from their game, a pond was surrounded by grass and trees. A group of Twin Oaks men had just decided to go swimming.
Alasdair tried to focus on the mallet in his hand and the croquet hoops pressed into the grass. The swimmers were slipping out of their clothes and stepping onto the bare sand bank. He heard the splashing sounds of their bodies in the shallow water and for a moment he looked their way. The swimmers were naked in the April air, and completely unashamed.
He felt a familiar burning inside. He could look away, could push the sight out of his mind’s eye, but something electric still drew him to the men in the water.
Alasdair had grown accustomed to self-discipline. He’d found Mormonism as a teenager, and ever since he’d followed the Mormon prohibitions on alcohol and coffee and tea. These were commandments of his faith, designed to keep his body pure. And for all of those years he had resisted sexual desire, too: total chastity is essential for a young Mormon, until he comes of age. Mormon men are usually considered ready to marry when they finish their mission. Many date seriously within weeks of their return, sometimes even marrying in the first few months.
Mormonism, therefore, had given Alasdair a reason not to think about sexuality—until now. He had returned from his mission; he was expected to feel sexual desire in the normal process of courtship. But Alasdair did not want to look for a wife, because he felt no attraction to women. He could remember his total disinterest when his fellow lacrosse players in his high school had obsessed about girls. He could remember the thrill he’d felt when a boy in one of his classes had taken a liking to him, always hugging him and running a hand down his back.
That day by the pond, Alasdair began to wonder what kind of exchange he had made for his religion. He felt jealous of these swimmers. There was such shameless pleasure in their nudity. He wanted the freedom they had to express their desire.
Mormons tell the story of Jacob and Esau, sons of Isaac, Israelites of the Old Testament. Esau returned hungry from the field and found his brother Jacob, the second born, bearing a stew of lentils. Esau felt faint before Jacob, famished to the point of collapse. Give me some food, said Esau, and Jacob replied: Sell me your birthright, your inheritance as the eldest son. Then I will feed you. And Esau ate.
It felt to Alasdair as if he had traded away a human inheritance—the possibility of a sexually fulfilling life—for the spiritual inheritance of his faith. It felt as if he’d spent his life savings before counting his unpaid debts. Alasdair had found deep passion in his church, in his Heavenly Father, but he wanted another kind of passion.
The Girl Who Glowed
Alasdair had first encountered the Church of Latter-day Saints when he was thirteen, in 2005. It felt, later, as though the elements of his life had aligned to make it possible. He would not have accepted a pamphlet or a flyer or a missionary’s knock at the door. Mormonism reached him in his own way, in his own language. It was love for a woman, in fact, that drew him to the Church.
Alasdair and his mother had just moved to a new suburb of Maryland. His parents were recently divorced. The old house was saturated with memories for Alasdair—his mother stubbornly going to nursing school against his father’s wishes, and the two of them yelling late into the night. Yet that house still seemed beautiful and safe. He could remember its rooms; he could walk through each one in his mind. He missed the town’s long suburban driveways and front yards, all those streets with names that included the words Circle and Circuit that turned you around if you weren’t lucky enough to live there.
One day Alasdair’s father announced a five-week business trip that would take him back home, to Nigeria. He left on the trip and didn’t come back. It felt as though his family had suddenly cracked in two.
So Alasdair and his mother lived in a small apartment outside of Baltimore, on the street that led to his new high school. Alasdair’s mother became a night-shift nurse to pay the bills. In the evenings, Alasdair would look into her empty bedroom and wish she would come home.
Then, just before Valentine’s Day, he met Rebecca.
Alasdair’s final year of middle school was 2005, the year he would finally enter high school. His father had groomed him to go to Harvard by denying him video games and pushing him to read, but Alasdair wanted to take control of this new life. He was therefore gaining a sudden interest in polo shirts and lacrosse. The polo shirts were worn stacked like interlocking dishware, popped collars reaching proudly toward the sky. He did not particularly care when his classmates said he was trying too hard. Neither could they stop him from playing lacrosse, even though that meant ignoring his natural talent for distance running. He was horribly awkward in the heavy pads of a lacrosse player, but willful clumsiness suited him better than accidental grace.
He knew from a book, anyway, that lacrosse was the sport that would earn him permanent popularity. It had become the bible of his early teenage life: The Official Preppy Handbook, by Lisa Birnbach, a guide to sports and school and shoes that would remake him in the crisp image of a groomed and savvy prepster. “It is the unalienable right of every man, woman, and child to wear khaki,” this book told him. “There is only one cut for men’s trousers—straight leg, neither tapered nor flared.”
Later he would grasp that the Handbook was a work of satire. One does not always have the luxury to separate commandment from comedy.
One night, a friend of his brought him along to a dance at a private girl’s school. Compared to Alasdair’s public school, even the gym where the dance was held seemed grand and elaborate. In the dim light, beneath the din of a beat and a bass line, he could see well-dressed teenagers pressing their bodies against each other to the music.
Across the dance floor, he spotted a girl. She was prim, beautiful, and black like him. She looked familiar somehow, as if they had known each other as toddlers. And it seemed to Alasdair that she gave off a light, an aura that pulled him toward her. He thought to himself that this was a girl who understood Prep—she had the buttoned-down look of a young woman with manners.
He walked, captivated, through the crowd, squeezing past clusters of students and dancing couples so he could introduce himself. Her name was Rebecca. She would ask him, later, why he never asked her to dance that night. The thought never even occurred to him. He was not at all attracted to her sexually. He was like a moth drawn to a flame; he simply saw and sought her glow.
They spoke for a little while, leaning in to overcome the volume of the music, and he asked for her screen name so they could instant message later. Years later, thinking back to that moment, the world love would still be on his tongue.
They began to talk online that spring. Late into the night, their instant messages would stack up on the screen. Alasdair felt safe, typing to her the secrets of his life—he told her about lacrosse and polo shirts and even the Handbook, and not once did she make fun of him. She told him that he was the first friend she’d found who didn’t recoil from intelligent discussion.
It was at least two weeks before Rebecca told him that she was a Mormon. She typed it casually one day, stating it simply on the screen as if it was an afterthought: I’m a Mormon. Alasdair had been brought up vaguely Methodist, but he and his mother hardly ever went to church. He had never met a Mormon before. His mother thought of it as a fanatical religion, and he’d never had reason to disagree. It seemed adorable to him, somehow—it made him want to pat Rebecca on the head. He could imagine her church in his mind: a small building filled with dancing cultists bathed in light.
But he began to read about this church, the Church of Latter-day Saints, trying to understand the young woman he to whom he felt so drawn. He started with the simple and didactic Mormon texts he found online. Soon he moved past these, diving into the Book of Mormon and heavy volumes of Mormon history and theology. He read texts that even devout Mormons would consider dense. But Alasdair’s father had raised him to be a reader. He did not find it particularly strange to sink into the writings of Hugh Nibley, a Mormon scholar who had sought out Mormon scripture hidden in the languages of Egypt.
He began to understand, little by little, the light he had seen in Rebecca. A Mormon believed that fundamental truth was accessible and achievable. That a set of rules could keep you pure. That all people have infinite potential—the potential, even, to become a god. It seemed less a religion than a philosophy.
Alasdair could see that it was not a perfect faith. The Mormon Church had been built on nineteenth-century polygamy; it had denied full membership to blacks until 1978. These things troubled him. And yet it was a religion that believed in progress, in perfectibility. The first Mormons had been American Christians discontented with their faith, yearning to reconstruct and reaffirm the teachings of Christ. In 1844 the first Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, was killed in Illinois by a mob outraged by his teachings and his polygamy. When Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, led his people to the desert Salt Lake Valley in 1847, he wanted to build a new society—a utopia. This he called Zion.
Alasdair would think, later, that he could only have come to Mormonism through Rebecca. No missionary could have shown him the way. It was as if the path had been tailored for him, this improbable convergence of Prep and beauty and intelligence that had shown him the way to walk. He would think of it later as an artistic experience, meeting Rebecca at thirteen years old in the dark of a school dance. It was proof of a God who knew about beauty.
A Revelation in the Dairy Barn
Those weeks in April 2012, at Twin Oaks Community, Alasdair worked and ate and lived alongside the commune’s residents. Farm labor was nothing new for him. When he was seventeen, Alasdair had enrolled in a two-year college in California called Deep Springs. It was a tiny desert college that operated a ranch, and physical labor had been part of the school’s curriculum. He’d learned to use a milking machine as the campus dairy boy, so that was the job he requested at Twin Oaks.
The commune’s dairy boy was Rick, the gay ex-Mormon. That was how the two of them ended up together in a barn full of pipes and tubes and cows. It was a short walk from the rest of the commune, surrounded by fields and a few clusters of trees.
Alasdair had seen Rick around the commune since they’d met on the visitor tour. It was almost always awkward, mainly because Rick was always wearing dresses. Between Mormonism and The Official Preppy Handbook, Alasdair still dressed like he went to Princeton in 1920. Rick, meanwhile, seemed to violate some unspoken rule of maleness with every step he took.
Rick didn’t particularly believe in unspoken rules, or even in maleness. Yet somehow, Alasdair felt a deep and confusing connection to Rick. Flamboyant clothing or not, Rick understood Alasdair’s faith better than anyone at Twin Oaks.
They talked about the past while they worked, the machinery humming around them. Alasdair recited his own story as if it were a list, ashamed of its drab linearity. Grew up in Baltimore. Found Mormonism as a teenager. One semester at Brigham Young. Then his mission in Salt Lake City. These were the simple details that he’d shared hundreds of times before. He wished he could seem creative or unique somehow, but he was careful not to talk about anything that might make him sound gay. He felt he had to be cautious and withdrawn or it might show, as if his story was a short skirt and he had to keep his legs crossed.
Rick’s life, meanwhile, had glamor, romance, unpredictability: mission abroad; life in Salt Lake; coming out; leaving the church; sexual adventures; and then a room, of all places, on a commune. Alasdair could feel the smallness of his story against a life like that. “Tell me more about you,” Rick said, a request so open-ended it was agonizing, unsafe.
So he decided to say it. It was the one detail that he knew could make him surprising and interesting. “Well, there’s the obvious thing,” Alasdair said.
“What’s that?” asked Rick.
“I have same-gender attraction,” said Alasdair.
Rick couldn’t believe it. He had seen the simple glow of a returned missionary in Alasdair, the neat clothing and polite restraint that was so stereotypical among Mormons. Alasdair’s faith had made him opaque—had made him seem, even, like he was an uptight young Mormon on the prowl for a wife.
Rick treated him differently from that moment they shared in the barn, alone among machines that whirred and flowed with fresh dairy. He wanted Alasdair to come out, to admit that he was gay, to take refuge in the accepting community he could find at Twin Oaks.
It was around that time that Rick told Alasdair about Giovanni’s Room, a novel by James Baldwin. Giovanni is an Italian man who meets the book’s protagonist, David, and they have an affair in Paris. The windows in Giovanni’s room have no curtains, and they’re coated instead with white swaths of paint. They live there together, and for a little while Giovanni’s room feels separate and protected from the rest of the world.
Rick told him that maybe he could be like James Baldwin—smart, artistic, black, and openly gay.
There was a party in the visitor’s cabin a few nights later, near the end of Alasdair’s time on the commune. They were serving alcohol, which Alasdair always avoided on religious grounds. He walked up the wooden stairs to Rick’s room, knocked on the door, and told Rick about the party. “I know you’re not a member anymore,” Alasdair said, “but you’re a returned missionary. You understand when I say I don’t want to be in a room with drinking.” He was wearing his usual nice clothing, looking tense and uncomfortable in the evening spring air.
Rick invited him in and suggested that they watch a movie. He chose Boys in the Band, one of the earliest films to openly explore gay life. It depicted a party full of gay men in New York City.
Rick said that he should wear something comfortable, and found an oversized T-shirt and sweatpants for Alasdair to change into. Alasdair agreed and slipped Rick’s clothes over his white temple garments, the fabric loose against his skin.
They sat next to each other long into the night, Boys in the Band flickering before them. The nude pictures still hung on the wall, and outside the moon was almost full.
Alasdair had his first sexual experience that night, there at a commune he had never expected to visit, with a man he had never expected to meet. If he ever forgot what Twin Oaks Intentional Community looked like, its wood-slat buildings and fields and trees, he would remember Rick’s room.
Rebecca left Alasdair’s life as abruptly as she had appeared, but the bright glow of Mormonism did not vanish with her. It was October of 2006. Alasdair was fourteen, in his second year of high school. He didn’t see Rebecca in person often, but they still spent long nights typing instant messages to each other, talking about philosophy or faith or the future.
Again it was a dance that began a new chapter of Alasdair’s life. His school’s homecoming dance was coming up, and he wanted Rebecca to be his date. Her parents were skeptical at first: Rebecca’s school was across the street from a respectable private boy’s school, but here she wanted to attend some public school dance miles away. After a long while she convinced them.
Alasdair was jittery with excitement on the night of the dance. His mother had agreed to drive him, but his eagerness aggravated her. She told him to calm down, and he tried weakly to contain himself. They had already started driving when she finally snapped, taking out her sour mood on Alasdair’s jumpiness. She told him that they were going home.
Years later, Alasdair would understand that his mother was stressed, working long nights as a nurse and raising her son alone. But that night, he couldn’t forgive her. He called Rebecca and spoke feebly into the phone. “I can’t come,” he said. “My mom won’t let me.”
The next day, Rebecca called back and spoke an acidic message into his machine. Don’t call me, don’t text me, don’t email me, don’t write to me. Don’t even think about me, ever again.
Alasdair was devastated. She had seemed like the brightest part of his life; she had led him to his faith. He felt her gaping absence for months to follow, well into 2007, and he turned to books with a passion that resembled desperation. He read Nausea by Sartre and then turned to James Joyce. First Dubliners, then Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then the massive tome of Ulysses. He joined a creative writing club at school and began spending long afternoons in front of the computer, listening endlessly to music and turning it into words.
Alasdair wanted to become a Mormon, but he was afraid to tell his mother. She saw the Church of Latter-day Saints as a cult. So he simply lived as a Mormon, keeping a copy of the Book of Mormon under the bed, where she wouldn’t find it. He followed the commandments he had read about alcohol, tea, and coffee. Sometimes he noticed a cute boy at school, and out of respect for Mormonism he pushed those thoughts away. He could sort out his feelings when he was allowed to feel them, when he outgrew the chastity of youth.
He wrote a series of poems, instead, each one named for a woman. He felt no physical longing for women. He simply saw beauty and power and grace in them. It was as if artistic appreciation for women could replace the lust for men that he refused to feel.
One of the poems was called “Rebecca.” He would recite it to himself over and over, so often that years later he still remembered every word.
We would go to school sometimes, on the days the streets were covered. Fearing that the endtimes had begun—I would find a good book in the place, and sit down and take it and love her….
“Rebecca” was a poem about the end of the world—the endtimes, the second coming of Christ. She had disappeared from his life. But Mormonism flickered inside him now, like one candle lit by another, ready to burn on its own.
Alasdair was baptized in the summer of 2009. He had wanted to convert ever since he met Rebecca at thirteen, but he had always expected that his mother wouldn’t let him. So he simply waited until he turned eighteen.
He had gone away to Deep Springs that summer, the two-year college where he worked as dairy boy. Twenty-four young men studied there, an hour from the nearest town.
His eighteenth birthday came in July. Soon afterward, on a Sunday morning, his friend Samuel dropped him off at the modest Mormon Church in town. Samuel was Catholic and drove off to attend his own service. He’d be back in three hours. Alasdair walked inside, introduced himself to the two female missionaries, and asked simply if he could be baptized.
The young women were delighted. They described a six-week process of study before the actual baptism could take place—a period that Alasdair had never heard of because of his peculiar self-taught Mormonism. He studied each of those six weeks with the missionaries, constantly surprising them with the amount he already knew. One of them, he found out later, wrote home to her mother: I think Alasdair is teaching us.
On August 8th, 2009, the night before his baptism, his college had a yearly ritual. It was a brotherly college, designed to foster tight bonds between men. And so in the middle of the night, every student—all two dozen of them—piled into cars and trucks and drove to a small desert valley nearby. Alasdair and Samuel sat together in the back seat.
The sky looked as if someone had tossed handfuls of white sand across the black night. The valley was lined with dunes and lit by a full moon. Alasdair and his classmates stripped naked, and Samuel and Alasdair stood next to each other in the sand.
They tumbled down the dunes together, feeling the warm desert grit against their skin.
By the time they finally dressed and piled back into their cars, it was 3 a.m. Alasdair and Samuel got back into the back seat. As the car hummed along, Samuel fell asleep on Alasdair’s shoulder.
Alasdair looked out at the desert, thinking about how free he had felt, naked in the warm night. He thought about his attraction to men and the faith he had chosen. He understood that his own religion taught that acting on same-gender attraction was sinful—he understood that he would be barred from expressing the desire that burned in him. Yet he felt a kind of peace. He believed in his heart that his church was true.
The next morning, Alasdair Ekpenyong was baptized a Mormon.
It was the middle of April 2012, near the end of Alasdair’s visit to the Twin Oaks commune, and he was preparing himself to make a phone call.
He felt unclean and unworthy in his temple garments, these symbols of his supposed purity. He was going to confess his sexual experience with Rick to his bishop, the same man who had sent him to Twin Oaks in the first place.
He considered the possibility of excommunication from the church he loved. An excommunicant is barred from basic rituals and removed from the official records of the church. He can attend public services, but that is effectively the limit of his participation. To Alasdair, it would be like losing a limb. He had devoted so many years of restraint, prayer, and utter devotion to this church. In an instant it could be for nothing.
Yet Alasdair dialed. He understood that it was his responsibility to confess: A Mormon goes to God through his bishop. Confession is the path to forgiveness, if your sin can be forgiven.
The bishop answered and the story tumbled out.
And his bishop was compassionate. It seemed impossible to Alasdair that he might be forgiven. Maybe it had been date rape, the bishop suggested.
These were tempting words, words that could absolve him of sin. But Alasdair couldn’t bring himself to agree. He had consented, he told the bishop.
It could still be forgiven, somehow. He had been there on church business; his intentions had been pure.
“Should I take off my temple garments, because I’m unworthy to wear them?” Alasdair asked.
“Absolutely not,” said his bishop. “The only person unworthy to wear them is a formal excommunicant.”
For now he would remain.
Alasdair left the commune in the middle of April 2012. He returned to his mother’s house in Baltimore, a place to which he did not particularly like to return. He still fought with her, and felt she unfairly wanted to control his life. So he took a train to New York for a few days, to visit a friend he’d met in college.
On Sunday, the two of them went to a church service in Brooklyn together. It was a “young single adults” congregation, the sort of congregation where a Mormon man might meet his future wife. It felt, in fact, as though it was designed for that. That day Alasdair felt surrounded, suffocated, by a church that would only tolerate heterosexuality.
The first part of the Sunday service is an hour of songs, prayer, speeches, and the ritual of the sacrament, in which bread and water stand in for the body of Christ. Alasdair sat through all of that in uncomfortable silence. Then he told his friend that he wanted to leave.
They dove back into the tree-studded grid of Brooklyn, away from the blue-and-white church that rose tall and square from the sidewalk. They took the subway downtown and went for a walk, their bodies small alongside rows of skyscrapers.
Alasdair could feel his temple garments on his skin. They had always been a favorite part of his faith, a silent sermon that never left him. They were simple and familiar, yet it felt as though they were choking him.
He stepped into an American Apparel store to buy something else to wear, something white and secular. In the bathroom of a restaurant, he slid into the new fabric.
When temple garments wear out, a Mormon is expected to cut them into small pieces. Old temple garments shouldn’t be recognizable for what they used to be. Alasdair left his in the bathroom, intact and discarded, and he rejoined his friend.
Within only a few hours he’d started to feel bare, foolish, almost queasy. Deserting his temple garments felt like deserting his faith. He had planned to stay with his friend a few days longer, but he didn’t think he could do it anymore. There was another pair of temple garments in his closet in Baltimore. So Alasdair went straight to the train station, bought himself a new return ticket, and went back to the place he had come from.
Then July 2012 came, and Alasdair turned twenty-one. For the first time since his mission began, he returned to school for the summer term at Brigham Young University. He would never be the same after that summer. It was the summer that he became a gay Mormon.
He moved into BYU’s campus housing and was assigned to a congregation and bishop there. Provo is a city of 110,000, so deeply faithful that its phone book lists fifty-one Mormon churches and one liquor store. Provo is sometimes harshly described as “behind the Zion Curtain”—wordplay on the Mormon motif of the veil, which symbolizes milestones in spiritual life. This intense spirituality permeates the university, whose Honor Code mandates expulsion for violations of some basic church tenets.
After his return to Provo, Alasdair started volunteering at Sunstone Magazine back in Salt Lake City. Sunstone is an alternative Mormon magazine that publishes essays on everything from environmentalism to sexuality to race. Many mainstream Mormons are wary of it, fearful that its “alternative” discourse is in fact heretical and dangerous.
Alasdair felt at home there. It wasn’t because Sunstone was bold or defiant, but rather because it was deeply philosophical. He had first learned about Mormonism, after all, through books and study rather than sermons or Sunday school. Reading Sunstone gave him the same intellectual satisfaction as tracts of theology he had read years ago. It gave him a way to think carefully about his faith’s beauty alongside its flaws and contradictions.
Sunstone was utopian, too, in its own way. Like early Mormonism, the magazine believed in perfectibility. While the church had become rigid and bureaucratic, Sunstone writers were more than willing to push for reform. Many of its writers and editors were not even members of the church anymore, and instead saw themselves as cultural Mormons. They wanted to remain in the community because faith still meant so much to them. Alasdair was learning that faith could still matter when it disappointed you; your community remained yours in discomfort and despair.
And sometimes, Alasdair felt despair. For weeks after the trip to New York, his temple garments became the symbol of his disenchantment. He would take them off for a few days at a time, until he again began to feel bare and foolish. Then he would put them back on.
He was trying to understand why it was paradoxical for someone to be homosexual and Mormon. On the face of it, marriage was the culprit: Mormons believe that families persist in heaven, which makes them essential on Earth. But that could not be the whole answer. A celibate Mormon, after all, has no family but remains a practicing Mormon.
Every Sunday, Alasdair went to church meetings on BYU’s campus. He belonged to a young single adult congregation, the same kind that he’d attended during his trip to New York. On campus, services are held in classrooms because the city doesn’t have space for 30,000 Mormon students. The congregation would read hymns from the same projector used for economics graphs and lecture slides.
Church sessions lasted three hours. The first involved song, prayer, sacrament, and speeches. Then an hour of Sunday school. Then the men and women separated for male priesthood meetings and female Relief Society. Alasdair would sit along the side of a lecture hall, near the chalkboard, uneasily surrounded by Mormon twenty-somethings who talked about jobs in Salt Lake City and cute girls. They were nothing like him, Alasdair found himself thinking. The only thing they shared was a religion that was trying to force him to change.
One day the leader of the priesthood session told them that they were old enough to be married: “Many of us have successful internships and jobs, but we really aren’t doing our duty in dating. So to encourage that, we’re going to do an activity.”
Then he did something utterly unexpected: He took out a toy soccer ball and tossed it into the group. “If you catch the ball,” he said, “you have to report on a date you’ve gone on this week.” If you hadn’t been on a date that week, you needed to start dating more actively.
A mandatory date report shocked Alasdair—this was pressure more explicit than anything he’d seen before. It was like the public enforcement of heterosexuality. More than anything, it filled him with fear. Any Sunday, he could suddenly end up with a toy soccer ball in his hands and an expectant audience of Mormon men.
So he gave in. Alasdair was in the campus bookstore one day, buying some schoolbooks. Between the shelves he saw a tall girl with short dark hair and glasses. She looked over at him and glanced at his suede boots. “I like your shoes,” she said.
And Alasdair did what he was supposed to: he asked for her number. Her name was Heather, and she gave it to him.
In the next few days, they sent a few texts back and forth. He asked her if she wanted to go see a foreign film on campus, but she was busy that day. He kept trying, texting her, and speaking with her online every so often. It seemed like every time he would bring up the possibility of a date, she had plans.
Weeks after they’d met in the bookstore, she sent him a message online. They started chatting, and she typed that she wanted to explain why she had evaded his date suggestions. Alasdair saw a message appear on his screen. I’m a lesbian, Heather typed.
Alasdair’s life felt like a grand comedy. It was one huge joke. Two strangers trying to plan what neither one wanted, out of fear or duty or confusion or hope.
After a moment, Alasdair typed back—I’m gay.
“God Designed Our Bodies”
Sunstone Magazine offered Alasdair a secretarial job in August 2012, when he was twenty-one. He accepted, knowing that he’d need to transfer to BYU’s Salt Lake City satellite campus to do so. He had not forgotten what it felt like to sit along the side of a lecture hall in Provo, facing a church leader and his expectations of straight marriage. It felt sometimes like BYU was full of perfect Mormons, men and women who strove for nothing more than a big, happy family and a casserole in the oven.
He thought about simply leaving Brigham Young University, that sprawling Mormon city, the largest religious university in America. He even applied to the University of Utah, but he couldn’t really afford the fees. Salt Lake City was a compromise with himself, because it allowed him to avoid the pious intensity of Provo.
So he moved yet again, this time to Salt Lake, and became the voice that answered phone calls to the office: “Good afternoon, Sunstone Magazine.” Sunstone was safe. In their office he could wonder aloud why Mormons believe in a Heavenly Mother but deny earthly women the priesthood. He could rummage through the bookshelves for texts on Mormon feminism and bluntly honest Mormon history.
That month, Alasdair began to date men. In fact, he went on a date every weekend of September. There was a thriving gay community in Salt Lake City if you knew where to look, particularly on dating websites. He’d meet someone online, trade a few messages, and go out for lunch or a movie. Many of them were ex-Mormon, even atheist. Sometimes he thought he was moving that way himself.
He knew, in any case, that dating men did not feel wrong to him anymore. He had simply never gotten a satisfying answer to the question: Why can’t a Mormon be gay? He always heard the same superficial replies—because scripture says so, or because Mormons are bound to chastity. These arguments had a hollow and mindless echo, like a schoolyard chant. From his first question came another: Why, for all these years, had he denied himself happiness because of an unjustifiable doctrine?
Still, he felt that if he was going to date, he needed to confess. He realized the magnitude of what he was doing, and he had not lost the pious impulse to tell his bishop everything.
Again the shadow of excommunication fell over him, the possibility that he would lose everything. This bishop would see that these dates were not isolated incidents; that Alasdair had chosen to repeatedly act on his same-gender attraction.
So he sat in his new bishop’s office one day and told the truth: that he was same-gender attracted, he’d been dating for weeks, and he’d broken the Church’s law of chastity.
This bishop listened and considered Alasdair’s actions. Like Alasdair’s old bishop, this one would not cast him out of the faith. He was willing to forgive, if you wanted to call it that, but Alasdair wouldn’t get off so easily this time. His good standing was revoked. He would be temporarily barred from church leadership and from the sacrament, the ritual that sanctified Christ’s body. And he would be denied the priesthood, the ability to bless and ordain others.
What Alasdair couldn’t understand was why, theologically, this should be the case. He thought back to the guy he’d been dating. “When I’m with him,” he said to the bishop, “I feel happy. I feel peace, I feel comfortable with myself. I feel a lot of the same good feelings that we talk about in the Church, and that we are taught are signs that the spirit is with you. I don’t see why it’s wrong. So can you explain?”
“God designed our bodies,” replied the bishop, “and every part of our bodies has a divine purpose. The purpose of our desires and our sexual organs is to reproduce and create families.”
Alasdair was crushed and angered, less by the punishment than by the lack of rigor in the explanation. He was willing to deny himself pleasure if he had a reason. A few years ago, he might have even entered a Mormon monastery if there were such a thing. He just didn’t accept the explanation he’d been given. “But I’m willing to respect your authority and trust your authority,” he said, “because I respect and trust the Church. So I’ll try to live as you’ve asked me to.”
He remembered Sunday school meetings that had used “object lessons,” or symbolic answers to questions of church doctrine.
Why do Mormons believe in baptism by full body immersion?
To explain his instructors had used a demonstration. They had covered Alasdair’s brown hand with sand, the gritty grains sticking in the lines of his palm. Then they had dipped his hands into a tub of cool water, and the sand had drifted away. “Could sprinkling have washed your hands? Could just a prayer have washed your hands? No. It has to be full immersion,” they said.
This was not theology, Alasdair knew, but metaphor. Elegance as substitute for rigor. Elegance had drawn him to this faith, but elegance could blind you, could throw a shining garment over a hollow core.
Alasdair did not remove his temple garments, but even wearing them he felt bare. He wanted to worship and he could not. In losing the priesthood, he lost the central right of a Mormon man. The punishment for expressing his sexuality was the destruction of his maleness. He thought he understood what it felt like to be a woman in the church: a Mormon woman is denied the priesthood and cannot hold the highest positions of church leadership. This was how it felt to be locked out of a male institution, to be a Mormon feminist.
Alasdair would not come out to a bishop again. Over the next few months, he decided that he would go to God himself when his questions could not be answered.
But his church did not leave him, and he did not leave his church.
A Gay Mormon
In October 2012, Alasdair went to a Mormon feminism conference in Salt Lake City. He was there to represent Sunstone, standing at a booth piled high with back issues of the magazine. A BYU student with sideburns walked up and said that his name was Max. He’d come with other students in the BYU Women’s Studies minor.
It was through Max that Alasdair found out about Feminist Home Evening, a group of BYU student feminists who pile into a Provo living room each week. It borrowed its name from a weekly Mormon tradition, family home evening, in which parents and children gather for wholesome activities and scriptural study.
Wholesome is not the best word for Feminist Home Evening. It is eclectic, earnest, faithful, transgressive. It is a circle of twenty or thirty Mormons, wearing dress shirts or skinny jeans or hoodies, sitting in folding chairs and couches around the edge of a living room. Each week, there is a new topic of discussion: whether the BYU Honor Code should be amended, whether women should wear pants in church, whether the Mormon Church should continue to criticize working mothers. And in the center of the room is a happily Mormon touch: a plate of cookies and a communal pitcher of water.
Alasdair began spending his Monday evenings driving down to Provo, the very city that he had actively tried to leave. He had found a small community in which he was understood. These students knew both the richness and the flaws of the Church of Latter-day Saints.
Feminist Home Evening showed Alasdair that there might be a place for him at BYU. It sparked a change in him. He started writing for a liberal student newspaper, the Student Review. He published blog posts that spoke plainly about homosexuality. Through writing online and campus activism, he was finding a thriving community of Mormons who actively supported gay rights within the church. Some of the students he met were also participants in “Understanding Same-Gender Attraction,” or USGA, a LGBT support group on campus. It was by no means easy for them—an informal survey of members suggested that 74% of LGBT students at BYU had considered suicide, and 24% had attempted it. But they were trying to form an optimistic, supportive organization, and their efforts were gaining traction and attention on campus.
Between Sunstone and Student Review and Feminist Home Evening, the Mormon world was starting to seem vast and varied. Perhaps even in Provo, there was space for him. Perhaps there was a way to come to terms with the iron locks he seemed to find everywhere in his church—its prohibitions on improper behavior, on unchaste thought, on passion itself.
Alasdair’s fear of punishment from the Church, even excommunication, faded. It did not leave him. But he came to believe that no bishop’s words could make his faith disappear. Even in excommunication, he felt he could remain a Mormon.
And he wrote to his mother, one evening. Ever since high school their relationship had been strained, and after his baptism it only got worse. Since his mission had ended, he’d worked part-time jobs so he wouldn’t have to rely on her. That night, though, he sent her a text. It told her what he felt: that he was gay and unashamed.
It was a long time before she responded, and when she did it would be cold and disapproving. In that moment, though, he sat on his bed gripping the phone, feeling an intense sense of release, as though he had passed through a veil. The veil has long symbolized the thresholds of Mormon life—birth, baptism, death. Somehow coming out as a gay man was a milestone in Alasdair’s spiritual life. A prayer without words, a baptism without water.
He recalled the light he had seen in Rebecca, the light that had led him to Mormonism. He sensed the same light around him. It had led him to this, he thought, to a simple and true phrase. He was a gay Mormon.
That winter, Alasdair began to write a series of academic essays about the Mormon city. This was the topic that his former bishop studied, the topic that Alasdair had been researching at the commune back in April. He still worked for that bishop sometimes, combing through old Mormon documents that might illuminate the spiritual dream of a utopian city. The bishop had supported him for a long time. He had been there at the end of Alasdair’s mission, after that first sexual experience with Rick, and during Alasdair’s transition to earning a living without his mother’s support.
In those months and months of research, Alasdair felt he had found some deep kernel of truth. He had read the prophet Joseph Smith’s writings on architecture and urban planning, writings that had deeply influenced the layout of both Provo and Salt Lake City. Smith had mapped out the city of faith he imagined. It was a careful grid, split up for farms and factories, for houses of worship and houses of men—each of the many pieces that comprise a House of the Lord. “Let every man live in the city,” wrote Smith, “for this is the city of Zion.”
One of Alasdair’s essays took Smith’s command literally. In the city Alasdair described, perhaps a man did not need to date a woman to remain in the church. He proposed a city designed for inclusion, a city with fewer locks and more doorways. The beginning of the essay quoted Joanna Brooks, a well-known Mormon feminist.
A Mormon feministis a person who thinks that all people should have the opportunity to love and serve God with all their might, mind, and strength – regardless of gender, race, or sexuality.
Alasdair was imagining a place where this was possible. It was a kind of utopia that the Mormon faith had not yet achieved. A utopian dream like Mormonism, Alasdair wrote, is not complete when a first city is built. A true Mormon must always chase perfection, and never pretend to achieve it.
He sent one copy to an essay contest at BYU, and he sent one copy to his old bishop. The essay won a BYU prize for exceptional student writing. He did not hear back from his bishop, not at first.
An Awful Day
It was love, finally, that threw Alasdair into doubt.
Back in September, Alasdair had met a BYU student named Ian through an online dating site. He seemed like the perfect stereotype of a young Mormon—a returned missionary, tall and blond, practically glowing with faith—but he had same-gender attraction. Every time they met up, Alasdair felt a deep and resonant connection, sometimes even a giddy kind of joy.
Of all the men Alasdair dated that fall, Ian may have been the only one to truly strengthen Alasdair’s faith. They’d attended the dedication of a new temple together and had gazed upward at the temple’s bright facade, its two white spires that pierced the desert sky. It felt as if a new flame had been lit inside him.
Yet Ian was uncertain. He hadn’t come out publicly as a gay Mormon, and he recoiled from the gay community on campus. Alasdair wondered if Ian would ever be openly gay. Perhaps he’d join the thousands and thousands of gay Mormons who simply choose straight marriage or celibacy. Alasdair yearned for something between them, but he could see in Ian a discomfort that their relationship might never overcome.
There was a day in February 2013 when Ian told Alasdair that he loved him. Alasdair could hear it in Ian’s voice: he meant that they were going to be friends, not lovers.
But a few days later, Alasdair tried anyway. He told Ian again that he was a gay man “I love you,” he said, and he didn’t mean it as a friend.
Ian was silent. His face seemed apathetic. “Are you okay?” he asked Alasdair. He made a concerned look, the perfect image of Mormon compassion. “What should I do?”
Only then could Alasdair feel the lead burden of his faith, all those years of wasted potential and unfulfilled longing. It was like looking at himself, one year younger—before the commune, before Sunstone, prepared to deny himself love out of loyalty to an intolerant church.
He remembered the yearning he had felt, stripped naked in the sand dunes beneath the stars. He remembered the boy in high school whom he’d simply ignored, who used to run fingers down his long back. He remembered the guilt and fear that had suffused his time with Rick. It was for Mormonism that Alasdair had restrained his deepest wishes. Now he was facing a man who would do exactly the same.
It was a truly awful day. He drove to the Sunstone house, thinking it might comfort him. But the world around him began to feel shadowy and distorted. He lay down on the floor of the office, not wanting to go home, and fell asleep.
It was dark when he woke, though not late. He was tense with fear. He thought for a moment that he would be mugged, right there in the office. The building was locked and everyone had gone home. The bookshelves and desks stood still and silent on the wooden floors. Even so he felt unsafe.
He got up, walked to his computer at the desk, and opened up his email. There was a message from his old bishop, a message about Alasdair’s essay on the utopian city.
The bishop had written that his essay was nothing but speculation and distortion of doctrine. He had hired Alasdair not to think but to write up his thoughts, the bishop’s thoughts, and here Alasdair was wasting his time on petty concerns and heretical feminist thought. There were more important problems in the world than feminism, the email continued. And at the bottom of the message was a list of the things that did matter. A list of the truth, a list of what he should care about. Energy issues, it read, health care.Food and food preparation.
A bitter memory came to Alasdair. He recalled priesthood meetings on the first floor of his church. They were men-only meetings, but the faint songs of women would drift down from the women’s meeting upstairs. Their voices would percolate into the room, echoing quietly through the walls, sounding sad and faraway. They were songs of women left out of a masculine Mormon world, locked behind the doors of a sexist church. This they called Zion.
Maybe there was no room for him in this cold and unfeeling faith. Maybe there was no truth to be found. He fled from his computer to the Sunstone bookshelves, looking for some kind of comfort, some theological path out of this. The shelves were filled with books he loved, spiritual and philosophical texts that had challenged and enlightened him.
Today they seemed riddled with contradiction. He saw a book titled Strangers in Paradox, and another called Proving Contraries. Then, A Gift Given, a Gift Taken. He was surrounded by twisted logic. He had spent years defending the indefensible. He had let himself become a paradox, an oxymoron. He was a gay Mormon.
He began desperately to call old friends—Mormon mentors and spiritual companions who might remind him of the light of his faith. The first one he called was late for a doctor’s appointment. The second was on the way to an appointment. When the third one told him that she was leaving for the doctor’s, he put the phone down in dull shock, feeling that the world was once again pushing him to some kind of truth. Mormonism was a shape-shifter that welcomed and then betrayed you. Spirituality was a roomful of ghosts and shadows in the air.
A thought appeared to him then, and he reached out for it in the dark room of his mind, wondering if it might hold some unexpected comfort. He felt relief when he grasped it. He thought: My atheism is true.
The Opening Thing
Alasdair’s doubt did not last, not entirely. It parted and settled like thick smoke. It cleared just enough for him to breathe again, seeming to leave a coating of gray dust on everything.
When his faith crept back it was softer, smaller. He felt God’s presence, but it was like a small voice that would fall silent sometimes, beneath the static. He thought about the locked doors of Mormonism, the women who were excluded from the priesthood, the openly gay men who were barred from Mormon ritual and sometimes from their faith.
He thought to himself that Mormonism is a House of the Lord—a house just like his old house in the suburbs, or like this one-story Sunstone building in Salt Lake City. A house has many rooms. Perhaps even in a beautiful house there must be rooms of darkness. Rooms of revelation and rooms of joy. Rooms of terror and rooms of doubt.
And a city of faith must be made up of many houses. There were some with countless children inside, some with a man and woman, just married. Some with a father, some without. And there were some with two men inside, living together, a family.
A memory came to him, long forgotten from his early childhood. In his old house in the suburbs, the house he’d lived in before the divorce, every doorknob had a lock. When you shut a door, the lock would click into place and you’d be locked out. But every knob had a little hole. His parents had shown him how to insert a screwdriver and make the lock pop open.
“This is a screwdriver,” his parents had explained. But his small lips couldn’t pronounce the word. So Alasdair always called it the “opening thing.” It was a magical object, the opening thing—a key that worked on every lock. Sometimes Alasdair locked himself out of his own room while his parents were entertaining guests. He would have to interrupt them in the dining room to ask for the “opening thing.” The guests always found it adorable.
There were locks on the doors of Alasdair’s faith, iron locks that seemed heavy and immovable. But there must be a key, some kind of key. Maybe there was a key.
Maybe the perfect earthly city—the true utopia, the city of Zion—was not a city without locks. Maybe it was simply a city where people never stop looking for the keys.
Alasdair Ekpenyong lives in Provo, Utah and expects to graduate soon from Brigham Young. He’s twenty-three.
In the years after college, Alasdair believes that many gay Mormons face a choice: willful resignation from the church or an ongoing risk of excommunication. For the moment, he attends church and prays, sometimes, but he isn’t sure if he’ll still be a Mormon in five years. The possibility doesn’t worry him much.
Local Mormon practices aren’t tightly standardized, which means that there are some wards in which gay Mormons remain active members. Mormon feminism continues to thrive. In June 2014, however, one of most prominent Mormon feminists, Kate Kelly, was excommunicated for advocating the ordination of women. The news reminded Mormon activists of just how much they stand to lose.
This year, Alasdair played one of the lead roles in I Am Jane, a play based on the life of a nineteenth-century black woman who became a prominent member of the church. The experience brought him into another tight-knit group of activists: the black Mormon community. Only a few hundred students in BYU’s student body of 34,000 are black. But then, Alasdair has never minded being in the minority. In fact, it helps put his faith in perspective.
“I’m discovering other parts of my personality,” he said. “The blackness, gayness, academia— things that are natural to me and can never be removed from me. There is an extent to which Mormonism has become ingrained and mixed with me. But I think Mormonism is no longer the primary focal point of my identity.”
Oddly, this might make Alasdair more typical within his faith. When he first converted, he stood out, not because of his sexuality, but because of his intense devotion. He considered Mormonism his calling and career. “That was the organizing principle of my life,” he said. These days, he’s considering graduate school in art history or business.
It took him time to understand that churches are made up of people; and people, no matter how faithful, aren’t made by the church. “I’ve made some strides since then, he said, in “figuring out who I am outside of the faith. Which is not necessarily moving away from the faith itself, but really becoming more like other Mormons.”
Editor’s Note: Some names and identifying details of minor characters have been changed in this story. The author wishes to thank Darcy Frey for early guidance on this piece.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.